Columbia University senior Sarah Kinsley is a breath of fresh air in New York City’s post-pandemic live music scene. The 21-year-old musician-slash-producer first received national attention for her latest single “The King” after sharing a clip of the song on TikTok with the caption, “Ok I have discovered what it sounds like to truly be alive.”
Since then, following the release of her second EP named after its lead single, “The King” has amassed over 17 million streams on Spotify, with Kinsley herself gaining 1.1 million monthly listeners—even earning her an Instagram follow from singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko. From intimate acoustic shows on campus at Columbia to being featured on Grammy-nominated musical artist Ford’s 2018 album (The) Evening, Kinsley shared with us the indelible magic and vulnerability of self-production.
Kinsley’s lilting vocals accompanied by an enthralling blend of uplifting beats and ethereal synth sounds have immediately established her as an artist to watch closely, and one to hold even closer to heart. Fans of Fleetwood Mac, Maude Latour, and Maggie Rogers will find both comfort and awe from The King.
Kinsley will be supporting Laufey at Rockwood Music Hall on December 1st and performing her first headline show at the Mercury Lounge on December 9th.
The Untitled Magazine had the opportunity to meet with Sarah Kinsley to discuss her upcoming headline show, the role of TikTok in the success of her most recent single “The King”, and how her music pushes beyond the boundaries of genre.
AC: Thank you for meeting with me in person. I’ve heard this pastry shop has seen a lot of famous writers. Do you come here often?
SK: Over the summer, I came here every day to write. Somebody told me once that the frames on the wall are all books that, to some degree, have been written here. I like to do work here. I’d write music or meet people here. It’s great. I love it.
AC: Well, first off, I’d like to congratulate you on selling out your first headline show at the Mercury Lounge and on playing at SXSW this year! That’s very exciting. What are you most looking forward to about these two events?
SK: I think I’m just excited for live music to come back. I’ve been to a bunch of shows over the past few weeks and it’s such a thrill now, knowing that I’m going to be playing shows that are coming up again. Seeing how excited and rejuvenated people are to be back in an audience and there’s something very different, I think, this time around about live music. After COVID and after everything, something has changed a little bit. But I’m really excited. I’ve never been to Texas or the south. And I’ve never played a festival, let alone a headline show, so I’m really excited about all those things.
AC: Your latest, and second, EP “The King” was very much a tribute to your youth, marking your entrance into your 20’s. You grappled with confronting your fears of death and of letting go of childhood naivete. Now that it has been a few months since its release, and you are on your way to turning 22, what new findings have you come across as you enter young adulthood?
SK: I think this year when all the EP stuff was being planned out, and I was writing all the songs and getting them produced and working on finishing them, there was this really big drive on happiness—or being alive—being this really big burst of things. And so “The King” itself is a rush. It’s fast. I think that I thought of the idea of happiness, or entering adulthood, as this really fast thing. Suddenly it explodes or erupts. The song captures that, which is what I wanted. But now it’s been a year, or more than a year, since I wrote it, and I’m finding out that there’s so much more emphasis on being grounded as you get older. I was talking to my friend about how our ideas of happiness change every single day. Is it just moments where you’re like, “This is the greatest thing ever!” Or is it this really constant, really healthy, very beautiful state of peace where everything is balanced, and everything is in this state of flux. I think that’s something I’ve been learning.
AC: It’s difficult to try to assign your music into a single genre. The labels indie, alternative, and pop have all been tossed around. What elements about your musical background do you think contribute to this?
SK: The genre thing is really interesting. The other day my tour manager sent me a picture of him listening to the radio and it was a rock station on SiriusXM, and they played “The King”. They categorized it as rock and it made me so happy just because there have been so many different terms thrown around, which I love. I love when artists or musicians are able to escape the box of categorization or genres because it’s a very odd thing to place one word on a song and have it be. It’s very limiting sometimes. I think there are so many similarities between the different cannons of music that we look up to and reflect on, and classical music for one, I was in love with it as a child. Especially in romantic music, there’s so many instances where it’s so deeply felt, and it’s so emotional, and I think that feeling is very much constant in pop music as well. The rush of adding new sounds or moving it to new movements of the piece. It’s very similar across the two genres. I’ve been trying to record a lot more with violins and things like that because I was really in love with that part of music as a kid and it’s hard to give up. When I go back to the violin or viola or piano now, it’s a very specific feeling and it’s very hard to shake. It’s very hard to let go. I feel like people always talk about it when you sit back down at a piano and your fingers immediately go somewhere. It’s sort of ingrained in you and it’s very hard to shake off. And I don’t think I want to let go of it, so it’s been fun to try and connect those two parts of my life.
AC: Your music has this very transcendent quality. Almost too overwhelming to encapsulate. Overwhelming is the wrong word. A better one would be irrefutable. It feels personal. It feels lived in. So what is it about your music that you think others can relate to?
SK: I’ve been trying to answer this question for the past few months. I’m like, “Why do people like this?” [Laughs.] I’m studying music and we question this all the time in our degree and when we study other pieces of music. Is it the lyrics? Is it the melody? Is it something that we can codify and study? And I don’t think it is. I think there’s something very specific about how songs come together, especially in pop music or any form of contemporary music, that’s irreplaceable if you take it out. I wrote about this terrifying feeling of entering a new decade. So many people understand what that is like. For everyone in their twenties, this is the second time. But it is the first time that you are so aware that you are getting older. It’s so interesting when people write about experiences that are sort of inevitable for everybody, but they put their own twist on it. That is the most meaningful music to me because it’s like, you’ll listen to this song, and you’ll get to the moment they’re talking about. I think people talk about the power of certain chords or certain drums, but again, I don’t think it’s a code or a system. The meaning isn’t derived from that. It’s the experience of listening to a piece of music as a whole. When you understand the story of the song, or you’re listening to it and having your own experience. I feel like what I’m doing, or at least what I hope I’m doing, is that I’m reacting to my own things that I’m writing, and I can only hope that somebody else has felt the same things that I have. It’s highly unlikely that you are the first person to feel this way. So many experiences are shared. I may just be the first to present this feeling in this way, and that’s special.
AC: I understand that for a lot of musicians, or artists, there’s this question of whether it is necessary to pursue music in an academic setting. What do you think about this debate?
SK: Obviously anyone who can go to school is incredibly lucky. There’s a huge history of musicians or artists who go to school, and then they leave. They decide “I need to devote all of myself to this” and that’s very respectable. But I’m so lucky to go to school and read silly case studies in my Music and Law class about the Beastie Boys or Marvin Gaye. But I can also see how education can be very stifling because you are being taught this very specific system about how music should be, or how music has been. I think it is a balance. On some level, you’re exposed to a crazy world of scholarship and academic research that has been done for years and years and topics that I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t had somebody teaching them to me. No matter what people decide, there are so many avenues of how to pursue music. Studying music theory is not the baseline. But I’m really lucky to go to music theory classes and incredibly privileged to sit in Ear Training class and learn to have perfect pitch, you know?
AC: You’ve mentioned how studying music in an academic setting can be very stifling. How have you managed to carve out your own sound and be original in your creative process while taking up music theory classes?
SK: That’s a good question. I think for the most part studying classical music has been really refreshing. You can pull things from old pieces or see how other composers have done what they’ve done with chord progressions and notes because we are all given the same scale based on the system that we use, which is the piano. We talked about the melding of genres before and I think maybe back in the ’60s or ’70s, or the beginning of rock or disco is when people started to push the blurred areas between genres. Whether it may be pop and rock, or disco and hip hop, or dance and indie, they discovered a whole entire crazy landscape for originality. But it’s only because they’re pushing against the need to be mainstream. Or maybe you can also dig into the most basic version of the mainstream and discover something new. Do these lines exist at all or have we just made them up?
AC: “The King” initially went viral after a TikTok you had made. Another TikTok of yours went viral too, in which you challenged the notion that there are no female music producers. Could you have predicted the role of social media in your rise as an artist?
SK: No. Not at all. When I was at home in Connecticut during the pandemic, my mind was so filled with so much stuff from social media that it was so overwhelming. So I definitely didn’t think that it would be the thing that I would use to talk about music or to make it at all. And it’s been so surprising. I’m just surprised by the platform every time I use it. It’s ridiculous how much it can do for independent artists. There’s this idea of “I found this” and less of “This has come to me.“ There’s some sense of agency in “I found them. I can share them with other people.“ It’s such an odd satisfaction cycle that the algorithm has. It incentivizes people to go and find other people’s music. I get to play SXSW and I get to have a show because of that. That’s crazy. It’s kind of insane. But it’s exciting, also.
AC: You are not only a woman in the music industry, but you are also of Chinese-American descent. How do you think these two identifies play a role in the way you are perceived as an artist, versus the way you wish to be perceived?
SK: That’s another good question. Both of them are so outdated. Not outdated in the sense that we shouldn’t pay attention to people’s identities in music, more so like it’s not the leading thing you should be focusing on when you listen to my music. There’s a feeling of, like, I am this person doing this in this genre, and that still feels new for some reason. It feels important to talk about. And I think it’s funny because although I love being compared to other artists, I do think the choices have been really interesting. A lot of people tell me my music is so much like Mitski, which I think is such a beautiful, flattering, over-the-moon comparison. I love Mitski. But a part of me also wonders if that perception is because of our music, which I actually don’t think is very similar at all, or if it’s just our presentation and what we look like. What we represent. That’s something that’s been rattling my mind for a while. And that’s a question that doesn’t enter the minds of typical, white male musicians. Is this comparison just happening because we look kind of similar? Which we also don’t, by the way. I was reading this thing today by Dominique Morisseau. She’s a playwright. And there was this really interesting thing about the complexity of artists and the wholeness. I think any artist would love to be perceived that way—as full, or whole. Bound with a lot of different complexities and meanings. Not just by identity, not just by the music, but as a whole. To be viewed as whole is a great desire that most people have, including myself.
AC: You are now in your final year of studying music at Columbia University. What can your listeners or fans expect from you after graduation?
SK: I would love to go on a bigger tour. I would love to put out more music, and fully dive into it. Balancing so many different aspects of life… I am so lucky to be doing all these things, but doing school and music has been slightly overwhelming. I would say I’m very ready to completely submerge myself into music and devote myself to it. Fingers crossed.